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Steelers Fans Wave Terrible Towels, Put French Fries in Salads

Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The team is headed to the Super Bowl again. Photographer: Rhona Wise/Bloomberg

They have their own dialect and use peculiar words like yinz, the local synonym for “you.”

They have their own literature (August Wilson, Annie Dillard, Michael Chabon) and food customs (French fries in salads and sometimes in bologna sandwiches, along with coleslaw).

They have their own rituals (waving yellow towels at football games) and convictions (devoutly believing those Terrible Towels actually possess the power to sway the outcome of games).

Welcome to Pittsburgh, whose Steelers once again are headed to the National Football League’s title game -- their third in six years -- and perhaps to an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl victory.

A century and a half ago the English novelist Anthony Trollope called Pittsburgh “the dirtiest place I ever saw.” Today its residents call their home the capital of Steeler Nation.

In truth, not all citizens of Steeler Nation live here. Many who comprise this city-state of the sporting imagination were born here and have never left. Others are former residents, people who left and returned, or those who became fans during the Terry Bradshaw/Mean Joe Greene era in the 1970s, when the Steelers morphed from likable losers to irresistible invincibles.

Steel, Meatpacking

This year’s Super Bowl matches two teams, the Steelers and Green Bay Packers, that represent cities traditionally known as manufacturing towns: steel in Pittsburgh and meatpacking in Green Bay.

While the Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins, the Packers hold the record for the most NFL championships with 12. (The first Super Bowl, won by the Packers, was played in 1967.)

One person who deeply understands the passion on both sides is Packers coach Mike McCarthy, a childhood Steelers fan who grew up in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh.

The Steelers, founded in 1933, symbolize Pittsburgh’s history of hard work and hard metal.

“We’re owners, but we share this team with our neighbors,” says John R. McGinley Jr., whose family’s partial ownership in the Steelers now extends to four generations. “The town owns this team.”

Work Ethic

Some of those neighbors have seen Pittsburgh change from a smoky city dependent on coal, iron and steel to a clean, white-collar town whose financial health is based on medical care, education and technology.

The Steelers’ style personifies the city: tough and dependable, without a lot of razzle-dazzle.

“The Steelers have a work ethic and values that are consistent with the work ethic and values of the people of the city,” says James E. Rohr, chairman and chief executive officer of PNC Financial Services Group. “And they are part of the city. They live here.”

Every spring and summer, Gus Kalaris stands not far from the Steelers’ Heinz Field, selling ice balls at the spot his father claimed in 1934.

Almost every day when he’s in town, Kalaris’s most loyal customer wanders by. Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is also the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, usually orders his ice ball flavored with lime.

“Sometimes he goes for the root-beer ice ball,” Kalaris says.

Immaculate Reception

This week thousands of residents of Steeler Nation will board planes for Dallas and the Super Bowl. As they approach their gates at Pittsburgh’s airport, they will pass two statues: One marks an historic defeat, another a miraculous victory.

The first is of George Washington, whose plans to capture Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War came to naught. The other is of Franco Harris, whose remarkable catch against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC playoffs is known as the Immaculate Reception.

Steeler Nation is hoping for another glorious moment on Sunday.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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